I am German-American. That is, I thought I was German-American. My last name, family tree, and pasty complexion point to Germanic roots. I like beer, I like sauerkraut, I own a pair of lederhosen, and I was mildly pleased to see Die Mannschaft hoist the World Cup trophy. I assumed I was as German as they came until I went to the 18th Annual Biergarten Festival this past weekend and realized just how lacking I was in that department.
Approaching the T.E.V. Edelweiss festival grounds in Morrison, bedecked in traditional Bavarian garb, I was at first eager to be amongst my people. It quickly dawned upon me, however, that while I sported a jaunty alpen hat and the blue-and-white checkmarks of my ancestors’ homeland, I was a poser. I was a Christmas-and-Easter churchgoer. I was an upper-middle class suburbanite at a Snoop Dogg concert. It was clear the moment I opened my mouth to order a Märzenbier that I’m much more American than I am German.
I could tell you everything you need to know about Märzenbiers (indeed, I have done that in a previous article) except, perhaps how to properly enunciate it. I’m a beer geek, not a linguist. As far as I knew, it was pronounced mars-in. I’d only seen the word written down, never heard it spoken. So, when I ordered the quintessential Oktoberfest lager from the Paulaner tent in my usual Midwestern drawl, I was met with a stern look, an implied wagging finger, and a correction: “Mehyrts-in!” I wasn’t helping my image by attending the festival twice in a row and wearing the same pair of lederhosen each day; I was immediately recognized as the butcher of the German tongue and chided for continually mispronouncing words even into the second day.
Okay, I can’t speak German. I can still call myself German-American, right? Maybe I can prove myself in some other way. That other way was not through dance. When the thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, high-kicking Schuhplattler dance troupe took stage, I was dazzled by their fast-paced, “extreme patty cake” maneuvers. Then my amazement turned to horror. My heart sank and my eyes averted. It was the audience participation portion of the show. Both days I was chosen at “random” (my authentic duds had the dancers believing I was capable of traditional German dance; a classic case of “don’t judge a book by its cover”), both days they had me learning different steps, and both days I proved I had zwei left feet. So incompetent was I on the second day that my dance partner, the high school girl that picked me out of the crowd, was moved to say, “Wow, you really suck at this.” Hey, you chose me, all right?
A man without heritage is lost, rudderless. One must have a past if they are to go forth into the future. What was I to do? Somewhere deep in the Bruns family records there’s a distant relative who may or may not have been born in France; shall I forgo my Germanness, give French culture a go? No, it would never work; I don’t like wine and I look terrible in a beret. I also have an iota of Prussian blood in me; perhaps I’ll focus on that? [Checks history books] Crap! Prussia’s not even a country anymore. I’m out of luck. I’m without a history. I’m just a plain, stock-model American. I am beige.
But wait a second!
The multitudes of green-clad revelers packing the pubs on March 17th—do any of them speak Gaeilge? No. Can they execute a flawless Irish jig? Absolutely not. Does that stop somebody of 2.6% Irish descent from wearing a shirt reading “Kiss me, I’m Irish?” Quite to the contrary. Why is this so? The answer stared me in the face like a bully on a playground. The solution to my existential crisis, the solution applicable to people of all cultures, is beer. The more of it you drink, the less you care about trivial details and the more you immerse yourself in the festivities.
Maybe I can’t properly pronounce an umlaut and maybe my legs don’t move quickly enough for Schuhplattler but I can down a liter of lager like a champ, I can belt out Ein Prosit like an opera singer, and I can prost like a pro; after doing that three or four times over, my general feeling of belonging soared. Go ahead and speak to me in German, I’ll smile, laugh, and say, “Ja, mein Freund” accompanied with a hearty slap on the back. Sure, I’ll get out on the dance floor; I’m already in lederhosen, how much more ridiculous could I look? Beer demonstrates once again its powers of social lubrication.
By the time I hopped into the passenger seat of my wife’s car, I’d had enough sauerkraut, enough bratwurst, and enough Paulaner to out-Germanize the Kaiser himself. I know who I am. I am American; my affinity for the local craft beer movement and the team I cheer for in the Olympics prove that much. Biergarten Festival, however, proves you can take the family out of Deutschland, but you can’t take the Deutschland out of the family. My Old World roots still flourish. I am the product of two continents.
I am German-American.